The journey is now over. There was still a lot we had to do to make sure our bikes were sent to Cape Town safely, but this was essentially just admin. As the days went passed, it became clear that it was going to be better to ship from Malaysia. The insurance alone that had been required at the border would have cost us around $200 per bike, even before looking into the ICP. That is a huge amount for just a few days. We began to phone around, but it turned out to be quite difficult to get people to respond to our queries, and often it was a back and forth exchange of information that clearly wasn’t going to produce anything in the time scale that we had available. The Taylor contingent had already booked tickets, and so one way or another, we would be flying out of Singapore on Friday evening. We said goodbye to Kath on Wednesday, when she caught a flight to Kuala Lumpur, and then on to Laos to join up with her siblings who were still backpacking for another month together. It had been fantastic having her along, and we would all like to give her huge thanks for how easily she fitted in with the group, and the fun and light-heartedness she brought with her.
By Thursday at noon, with no shipping prospects yet organized for Friday, we decided to make one last move, to get us one step closer to the shipping port city of Johor Bahru. By about 1:00 p.m., we were packed and ready to drive the last 20 km. Unfortunately, Shan’s bike shared none of our enthusiasm, and chose this moment to develop a fairly serious leak from the fuel tap, where the fuel leaves the tank, and is piped down to the engine. The next hour was spent removing the tank, and then taking the part around to some of the local garages to see if they could give us any advice. This proved to be more than a little frustrating, as at each place, attempts to explain the situation were immediately drowned out by emphatic statements that they did not have the part we required. The fact that we were not actually looking for a part, but merely some advice never managed to make an appearance in any of the conversations, and so we eventually gave up, and just decided to stuff it with gasket sealer and hope for the best. That seemed to do the trick, and we made our way to our hotel in Johor Bahru, having to make several U-turns in order to find our way. We finally managed to find the place, and settled in for our last night.
Late in the afternoon, Dad received a call from a guy that had been in contact with one of the shipping agents that we had approached for a quote. It turned out that this guy, Larry, was himself a shipping agent, and a biker, with lots of experience in shipping bikes out of Malaysia. He offered us a quote that would cover picking up the bikes from Johor Bahru, the closest city to us, and then sending them on to Klang, a port town right by Kuala Lumpur. From there, the bikes would be put directly into a shipping container, without any crating required, and then shipped off to Cape Town, where it would arrive three weeks later. This suited us perfectly, even though it was a higher quote than we had originally had. It was in fact the ONLY quote we had. Without so much as even signing a document we accepted his offer, with a sense of peace that we were going to be okay, after all the anxious moments.
And so when Friday morning came, we loaded up the bikes one last time (this REALLY was the last time) and drove them down to the pick-up point nearby. We offloaded the luggage that was going to go with them, and after saying goodbye to our untrustworthy steeds, piled into a taxi, with all our luggage, and were on our way to Singapore.
True to form, we had to go and speak to some high-ranking official to explain why our previous entry stamp had been voided, but once we had told him the story, we were waved through, and we were in Singapore. The taxi made its first stop at the hotel John had booked for himself and Carol, his wife, who was flying in the next day to spend the next couple of months backpacking around South East Asia with him. We said our final goodbyes, and then took the last drive down to the airport.
And that is where our story ends. As I write this, we are somewhere over Kenya, having covered in just over 24 hours the same distance that we have just taken four months to complete. It has been more than just an incredible experience; this will now be a reference point that we will carry with us for the rest of our lives. I will try and make sure that there is a final report given by each of the riders, to give each of us a chance to sum up our thoughts about this journey, but for now, it is the end, and we thank you for being a part of this with us, and for all the support and encouragement that has been given .
Malaysia to Singapore to Malaysia
After driving for exactly four months, our big day was finally here. We were now just a few hours drive to the border, a few hours from the goal that we’d been aiming for. It was strange packing the bikes for the last time, knowing that this was our last day of riding. After this, there was still some more admin to do, a ride down to the docks, no doubt, but as far as our journey was concerned, we would be done by the end of the day. We have travelled 22,200 km, across 17 countries and three continents in these past 123 days. We have slept in beds in 64 different towns, once on the side of a Pakistani highway, the floor of an Ethiopian bar another, on the deck of a ship, inside a Turkish bus while the snow and icy air brought the surrounding temperatures to minus twelve degrees, in the back of a truck wedged beneath four motorcycles, on an airport floor, on a unbearably long train ride in 45 degree temperatures, and three times in tents when alternative lodging could not be found. We have had days of no food and days of plentiful generosity. We have experienced over 17 flat tyres, eight broken shock absorbers, snapped clutch and choke cables, re-welded a shock attachment and clutch pedal, jump-, push- and tow-started bikes on countless occasions when the batteries have failed, replaced an entire battery, replenished the acid when it’s run dry on us, tinkled with engines and carburettors….and in fact, just so much more! What a phenomenal privilege.
We took our time loading up, chatting with the bikers from the festival, and trying to soak in the moment. We had a couple more quotes we were waiting for, and e-mails to send, and so it was only after 11:00 that we were on our way. The driving was easy, but our heads were a whirl of thoughts and emotions. By lunchtime, we had reached the Malaysian border, efficiency to the extreme. In fact, we weren’t even required to present any paperwork, and we had to chase up the officials to find out where to get our carnets processed. When I managed to find the office, I had to show the young official there how to fill them in, and show her which parts she needed to keep. And with that, we were free to go. It was quite a distance to get to the Singapore side, but after driving along a stretch of highway, we turned a corner and there was the bridge leading over the channel, and on the other side: Singapore. We drove slowly across, and stopped underneath the “Welcome to Singapore” sign to get one last round of photos. And then we were driving through to the immigration desk.
Right from the get-go, it was clear that while Singapore may be very regimented and bureaucratic, this was by no means a sign of efficiency. Shan and Kath had even been warned to dispose of their chewing gum before entering, as chewing gum was an offense that could earn you a stiff fine if you were caught. “I’m not sure if they’ll confiscate it if it’s already in your mouth” the custom official kindly warned, “but maybe. Definitely any that you have loose”. After being directed to two closed booths, we finally managed to find one able to help us. We filled in our arrival cards, and with a minimum of fuss, we were through, and headed towards customs, bearing our carnets.
That was when the problems started. Upon presenting the customs official with the documents, he gave us a dubious look, and asked us for our third party insurance. Now this is pretty standard in many countries, and there is always a place to get it at the border. But not in Singapore, baby. It seems that one has to either take a bus through into the city (which we were not allowed to do, as we had to stay with our bikes), or one had to find a broker in Malaysia somewhere to organize it.
On top of that, there was another document required, called an International Circulation Permit (ICP). True to form, this could also not be obtained at the border, but should have been obtained before arrival. Before we had left South Africa, we had spoken to the AA to make sure that we had all our documents for each country in order. They assured us that only the carnet was required (and a subsequent e-mail apologizing profusely for this oversight was about as helpful as a PowerPoint presentation at a conference for the blind).
And Singapore being Singapore, there was nothing we could do. At any other border post we would have been able to make a plan, but here, inflexible bureaucracy is the name of the game. We pleaded, we begged, John and Dad even screamed (but seriously, they actually screamed – personal mental highlight for me) but nothing. And so with that, we had no choice but to turn around and make our way back to Malaysia. To add insult to injury, they even demanded that we pay $1 each for crossing the bridge, some sort of toll. It is difficult to explain the frustration that we felt at that point. To have worked so hard, gone through so much, all the punctures, the broken shock absorbers, the late night truck drives with the bikes strapped to the back, the terrible roads, the hungry days, and freezing cold nights, only to be turned away right at the end was quite devastating.
Back at the Malaysian border, the officials were extremely sympathetic and helpful, and cancelled our departure stamp. Maybe it was a kind of emotional shock setting in, but we actually were in pretty good spirits heading back through, cheering on the myriad bikes that streamed back across the border as Malaysian workers returned from Singapore. Shan even managed to high-five a fellow rider as they drove next to each other along the highway. We were later told that 100 000 bikes crossed through each day, and none of the people we saw ever stopped to go through any paperwork at all, no sign of a passport anywhere.
We made our way to the closest border town and found a hotel. We unloaded our bikes and dumped the bags in the room. It was a pretty subdued supper that we ate in our rooms. From here on out, it will just be a question of looking for the best way of getting the bikes back to SA, either trying to sort out the paperwork and getting them into Singapore, or finding a way to ship them from Malaysia
And so that was that. We decided that since we had been stamped through immigration, we had technically arrived in Singapore, but it was hardly the grand entry we had anticipated. Whichever way you looked at it though, we had done it: we had driven our bikes from Cape Town to Singapore, and now it was time to start setting our sights on home again.
We were now basically one night away from reaching Singapore, and so we planned to get as far as we could that day, in order to minimize our travel time tomorrow. Although we had originally intended to get an early start, that fell by the wayside a bit as we tried to make final plans with Mat about shipping arrangements. Eventually, close to 10:00, we were on the road again. From here, the road made its gradual descent back down the plains below, but today we were having to navigate roads that were far more crowded then yesterday. If anything, the bends in the roads were even sharper, and overtaking became a bit of a nightmare. After five minutes of this, Kath, who has been riding on the back of my bike, was already starting to feel a bit nauseous with all the braking, quick bursts of speed and the relentless corners. The vegetation on either side of the road was still dense and verdant, and as we descended, we could feel the humidity building once more. Along the way, we passed small villages of hill tribes that still eked a living, far from the bustle of the big cities.
After a couple of hours of this driving, we were finally back on the straight road. After a drinks break just outside of Kuala Lumpur, we said goodbye to our French travelling companion, and headed South on the highway. About about an hour later, we pulled off for petrol, and noticed a group of riders on vintage bikes, many of them completely dressed the part in half-helmets, goggles, leather jackets and bandanas. When we went over to chat to them, they told us that they were all on their way to a big vintage bike festival that was being held at Port Dickson, which was actually one of the options that we had discussed as a destination for the day. After conferring amongst ourselves, we decided to make our way to the hotel where the festival was happening.
Port Dickson was probably less than 100 km from where we were, and on these highways, we found ourselves outside the Glory Beach Hotel in under an hour. Half of the parking lot had been given over to the festival, and the bikers were everywhere. Our heavily laden beasts drew admiring stares as we pulled up, and despite the fairly plush look of the hotel, we managed to get an entire apartment for a pretty decent price. From the 11th floor, we had a stunning view of jungle on the one side, and the island studded ocean on the other. Even better, we could see a large swimming pool down below us, although it seems that the kids had claimed the one with the water slide for themselves, the treacherous curs. Within five minutes, we were in the water (t-shirt and shorted up, as per the customs), grateful for a chance to cool off, while around us, guys and girls huddled in their respective groups, with some of the ladies even sporting lycra headscarves in the pool. As the sun began to set, I left to go and watch the sunset from the balcony of our apartment, while the girls stayed to play piggy-in-the-middle with a group of delighted Malaysian guys. The sunset was breath-taking, the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Some mysterious combination of clouds and sunlight made it seem as if drops of oil had been spilled across the sky forming rainbow bubbles in the clouds. In all my years of studying physics, I’ve never heard of a phenomenon like this, and I drank it in as the light dripped colours across the sky.
That evening, we ate at the hotel, a decent buffet spread, and then spent time wandering amongst the bikes, chatting to some of the riders, and admiring the vintage machines, some of them over fifty years old, and looking fantastic (the bike, not the bikers). Shan and Kath were roped in for multiple rounds of photos straddling the backs of the various biker’s respective machines. After a couple of rounds of walking the stalls, we returned back to the room to get ready for our final day of riding. With any luck, tomorrow would be the last time that we would have to pack our bikes!
With Shan’s repaired tyre deflating in the night, and our supply of repair patches exhausted, we could but wait until the first bike shop decided to open its doors before even thinking of hitting the road. Unfortunately, it was the weekend, and combined with our inability to meaningfully communicate with the neighbouring shop owners, it was difficult to ascertain when and in fact if these workshops would be open today at all. The best option seemed for Shan and John to simply station themselves outside the closed doors of two such shops and wait to see who struck lucky. John returned from his mission the proud new owner of about fifty spare patches. However Shan’s cunning plan of actually removing the wheel from the bike and presenting it to the workman meant that ultimately all the spare patches in the world counted for squat when presented with a freshly repaired and refitted tyre. While Shan had been sitting on the curb, wheel in hand, Kath had whizzed past her, side-straddled on the back of the hotel manager’s scooter. Apparently he was “so proud to be showing a white woman around his town” as this was his first time. Bless his heart, he took her to the ferry dock, and a few other roads before sitting her down with a map and explaining the richness and beauty of his country.
We are now less than 1000 km from our final destination, and with a few days in hand, we decided to head slightly off the main highway south towards the Cameron Highlands, a particularly beautiful part of the country. The morning’s drive was very uneventful (except for a small scare when we noticed John’s tyre was completely flat. Upon inspection it seemed that the valve has simply come loose and so a quick inflation on the side of the road sorted it out no problem), and we made excellent time along the highways. Since Nepal, we had been hearing about the Malaysian highways, and how fantastic they were. And the reports were completely true: three lanes in each direction, completely free of potholes, and the toll gates themselves even had a separate free lane reserved solely for motorbikes. After about 150 km, we turned off the highway and started East towards the mountains. Straight away, the road began to rise, gently at first, and then increasingly steeply. The roads were for the most part fairly quiet, making it the perfect motorbiking terrain, with sharp bends, and stunning views, and as we rose in altitude, we could feel the temperature dropping.
Around one corner, we saw a huge chocolate shop in front of us, attached to a tea garden, and with my Dad possessing a gloriously serious sweet tooth, we happily pulled over. It was such a strange place for the shop, as it seemed incredibly classy, with a huge variety of chocolate, and the best part? FREE SAMPLES!
After relaxing by the hydroponic strawberry farm with assorted strawberry themed desserts, we reluctantly climbed back on the bikes and started towards Tanah Rata, our destination for the day. It seemed that we were now in farming country, as from this point onwards, we saw covered plastic greenhouses on every available mountain slope, and large banners advertising strawberry farms on all sides, as well as other fruit, vegetables, and even fresh honey. The temperature was now a perfect 25 degrees, and we soon saw that this was the place to be in Malaysia. With Tuesday being a public holiday, it appeared that families were flocking to the area, and we turned a corner to find a solid line of cars, completely stationary. Fortunately, being on bikes, we were able to just ride along next to the cars, but this line continued through several towns, and must have stretched for over 15 km, with no-one moving. In one of the larger towns we passed, people were thronging the streets, and even with some large hotels on either side of the road, our guess was that many people would be sleeping in their cars tonight. And still the queue of vehicles continued, right up until we arrived in our town.
The first couple of hotels we tried were completely full, but after investigating several options, including one that was simply a mattress put down on the floor, we found a decent guest house on the edge of town. Once we had offloaded our bags and settled into the rooms, we emerged to have a look around. Waiting outside at one of the tables was a French guy, who introduced himself as Mat. It turned out that he was also a biker, and had been informed by his hotel manager that some bikers were in town and so had come to find us. He had also been all over Asia, and had actually followed a fairly similar route to us, starting from Turkey. It seemed that he was also potentially interested in shipping his bike to Cape Town, and riding up Africa from there. It was great to be able to swap stories, and get some advice from a fellow biker, and we ended up wandering around town together for a while.
We met up again that evening to get some supper and talk a little more about the possibilities of putting the bikes in the same container, which may end up a cheaper option for everyone involved. Over a steamboat, which is a kind of soup fondue, with mushrooms, chicken, fish, prawns, lettuce, noodles, eggs, and the like, we decided that he would look for shipping options from Malaysia, and we would investigate Singapore, and then make a final call about shipping them, once we had a few quotes, etc. We had been a bit concerned to discover that one of our original quotes that we had been given just before we left had gone up in the last four months, and was now almost triple what we had been expecting, never a fun surprise.
Kath and Shan had spotted a Karaoke bar in town while they had been exploring earlier, and we decided to finish off the evening there. We were given a private booth, where our caterwauling would not disturb the other guests. They ended up having a pretty decent selection, and even John got into the groove with some seventies classics, while the girls performed a spirited rendition of the Spice Girls’ “If you wanna be my lover”. Finally, long after midnight, we walked back to our hotel to collapse into our beds.
Thailand to Malaysia
Today was the day that we were originally due to arrive in Singapore, which is really making it feel like we are right at the end of our trip. But we still have a couple more countries to go. After the previous day’s rest, we were ready to be on our way, and after breakfast, we were on our bikes by about 8:30 and heading off towards the border. The landscape is still lush green jungle and towering hills looming over the road, with very few towns along the way. After driving about 100 km, I noticed that there was some white smoke flowing from Dad’s bike. Thinking that it may be some of his strapping that was resting on the exhaust pipe, I pulled alongside him to have a closer look. But when I saw what it was, I frantically motioned for him to pull over. His whole engine was belching smoke, and when he stopped, we could see that there was oil everywhere. This was serious stuff, as we had never had any engine problems up until this point. We wheeled the bike into the shade and began to strip off the seat and tank to have a better look. Upon inspection of the engine, it seemed that a couple of the bolts had rattled loose, and if that was all it was, we would have just been able to tighten them and be on our way. But the reason for them being loose was that they had stripped their thread in the engine mounting, which meant that we wouldn’t be able to tighten them in to seal the engine.
(For people who are unfamiliar with bikes or engines, that roughly translates as: “Sad face. The bike is broken, but not too badly.”)
After talking through several options, we decided that all we could do is tighten the bolts as best we could, and seal the thread with a special gasket sealer that we were carrying. Hopefully that would last for the next couple of days, and if not, then we would have to look at a more serious repair.
Meanwhile, Shan and Kath, who had been standing near the bikes, had been greeted by a local woman who managed to entice them back to her house on the other side of the road (which took a confusing 15 minutes to cross, since it appeared she was waiting for a gap of no less than 2 km between vehicles before deeming it safe to move over to the other side). After about half an hour of very stilted conversation, they were brought coffee and sandwiches by the son, who kept an unselfconscious grip on parts of his anatomy the entire time they were there. After that, everyone just seemed to sit around watching TV, making for a fairly awkward but very enjoyable morning nonetheless, especially with the father wandering around in just a sarong. Several visitors popped in, some of them just to stare.
Once the sealant had set, we topped up the bike with oil and took it for a test run: good as new. At least for now, anyway. With just 50 km to the border to go, and the rain just starting to set in, we were keen to be on our way into Malaysia.
We arrived in a torrential downpour, but this was quite welcome in the sweltering heat, and to our total amazement, we were whisked through customs and immigration in about ten minutes. We’ve never been through any border post that quickly anywhere on the trip, and very soon drove through to the Malaysian side. There, our luck ran out a bit, as everyone was on lunch break. But after half an hour, once they were back at their desks, it was the same story, just blisteringly fast efficiency. The one noteworthy point was the six fingered customs man (as in six fingers on each hand), and it was quite hard not to gawp at these two tiny extra digits protruding from the side of his little fingers, complete with fingernails.
And after fifteen minutes, we were through and on our way. Almost immediately, the road began to climb and we were presented with a stunning vista of jungles, mountains, farmlands and villages. Our plan was to get as far as we could today, and as it was only 2:30, we were intending to stop a few hundred kilometres down the Western coast.
That is, until Shan noticed she couldn’t really turn her front wheel all that well while passing through one of the small towns. Flat front tyre. We pulled over to investigate, and saw that somehow the lining that sits between the tube and the wheel rim had snapped, and was flapping all over the place. Well, at least this is something we know how to deal with. And so it was the usual toolkits out, wheel off, tyre off, etc. We had no rubber to make a replacement with, and so she ended up using ever faithful duct-tape to cover the rim. Unfortunately, the process of changing the tyre and lining the rim had to be repeated a number of times, since the spokes, which were sharper than we had thought, kept deflating each newly mended and inflated tyre. In addition, the tyre repair kit had run out of patches, so it was with some trepidation that we inflated the tyre for the third time. Happily, we seemed to have got it right, and once more we repacked the bikes, and started off, with the notable exception of Dad’s sunglasses which flew off from his shirt collar where he had placed them, but were only noticed a few kilometres down the road, necessitating a thorough sweep of the road, which lasted another half an hour, until their grisly remains were finally found , by Shan scratched and missing an arm. By this time it was starting to get late, and it was just a question of trying to find the closest hotel. We made for the coast, and found a decent place for a reasonable rate, although it was a bit of a cheek that the manager tried to charge us extra to park the bikes in front of the hotel, claiming that it would cost an extra R25 per bike for “security”. We quickly disabused him of this notion, and went to our rooms to shower, change, and recuperate underneath the air conditioning.
That evening, we made forays out into the street to find SIM cards, ATM’s, and food, which included some fantastic chicken satays, essentially small kebab with peanut sauce, and some fish which turned out to be far too fiery for John’s delicate palate. With nothing much else to do in town, we were back in the hotel relatively early, and soon asleep.